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Jon Warren

Founder/CEO at Forefront Commerce
Jon is a serial ecommerce entrepreneur and the Founder/CEO of Forefront Commerce. Jon loves scuba diving, Rugby League (real football) and good whisky (usually in that order).
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Getting the mix right to build a successful ecommerce site is definitely no mean feat.

There’s a whole host of things that need to come together to produce the perfect recipe for success.

I’ve got a checklist that we like to work through with our clients and develop on websites that we build. I know that if we can make good progress on each of these ingredients we will be able to produce significant improvements in revenue and profitability for our customers.

While each of these ingredients could be the subject of a post in itself; what I cover here should definitely get you on the track towards identifying your areas for improvement.

I’m assuming here that you already have a product and an offer that people want to shell out money for. If you don’t have that it doesn’t matter what you do online. This post is focussed on what your website and marketing should do to sell your products.

See how you stack up on each of these ingredients and use those thoughts as the basis for a plan to make improvements.

Spoilers…This is a long post, here are each of the 12 topics that I’m going to cover. Feel free to scan to what interests you or read the whole thing!

  1. Page Speed
  2. Mobile First
  3. Product Images
  4. Descriptions that Sell
  5. Trust
  6. A Clear Structure
  7. Upsells
  8. The Right Platform
  9. Functionality
  10. Content
  11. Customer Service

We guarantee that if you can improve against any or all of these ingredients you will see improvements in your business.

Page Speed

Ok,  unless you’ve been hiding under a rock you will know that page speed is becoming more and more important.

We are talking specifically about the time it takes each page on your website to load and render in a customer’s browser.

Why is this important?

Firstly the minor point; it is known that page speed is a minor organic ranking factor and a quality score factor that Google considers when ranking sites. The better your page speed the better landing page experience your customers will have and in turn the more Google will like you.

This is important because a healthy page speed will help your organic rankings a little and if you are paying for Google Adwords traffic it will also improve the performance and cost effectiveness of your paid traffic campaigns.

The second reason (and far more important reason) why page speed is critical particularly for ecommerce sites is that there is a mounting body of evidence to demonstrate that every extra second a page takes to load directly impacts upon conversion rates.

This is because every second extra a page takes to load, more customers will abandon the page before they see it or have a chance to purchase.

As reported by Kissmetrics, a 1 second increase in page load time can result in a 7% reduction in conversions.

The stats get even more alarming when you consider the implications on mobile – with 79% of surveyed shoppers indicating that they would be less likely to buy from a site again if it had a slow load time.

Currently the average ecommerce websites page load time sits at around 8 seconds while a majority of surveyed customers report that they would prefer pages that load in 3 seconds or less.

How do you stack up?

The first step for you is to work what your sites page speed is. Luckily there are a number of online tools that will provide a report on this for you.

Results can vary from tool to tool and at different times of day so we recommend you test a few different tools at varying times of day to get the full picture. Here are the ones that we commonly use;

  1. Google PageSpeed Insights. Google’s own page speed measuring tool.
  2. Pingdom. Use the free 14 day trial to get started.
  3. GTmetrix. Another great tool that provides detailed insights.

How did you do? We like to aim to get page speed down to 4 seconds or less. If you are above this you’ve definitely got room for improvement.

How to improve page speed

Now you know what your page speed currently sits at, what next?

Each of the page speed tools above will provide you a report that will identify areas for improvement. Usually these are listed in a traffic light manner with red being the most pressing issues and green being the areas that you are doing well.

Pick the low hanging fruit and start with easy wins. We’ll cover some of these in a more detailed post soon but the most common areas that we see improvement for ecommerce sites are;

  1. Images. Ecommerce sites are image heavy and while everyone loves big high def images, they slow things down incredibly. Make sure your images are compressed before uploading them. This can be done in Photoshop; or I use a simple, free tool called ImageOptim to get the job done.
  2. Use GZIP compression. This can reduce page sizes significantly and in turn page load times. Many of the hosted shopping carts like Shopify will have already done this for you but your host may not. Check with them or use this online tool to check for you.
  3. Clean up your CSS and Javascript. This is one for your developers. Have them set your scripts and stylesheets to run in external files. This will prevent them from having to load on every page that a user views.
  4. Cache Me. This is particularly for WordPress users. There’s a range of good plugins that will cache the most up to date version of your pages and display these to your visitors. This means that browsers don’t have to dynamically generate the page every time it loads.
  5. Don’t overuse apps and plugins. Many shopping carts like Shopify and content management systems like WordPress have additional apps or plugins to add additional functionality and features to websites without the user having to develop their own inbuilt code. The danger these apps/plugins is that they each take time to load. If you have too many they will bog your site down and affect your customers experience. Focus on only using the bare minimum to get the job done or use apps/plugins that load asynchronously. Remember, too many bells and whistles don’t sell!

Mobile First

This links in with the previous points made on page speed; but there are additional factors to consider.

You really would have to be living under a rock to have missed the buzz in recent years about responsive websites that work well on all devices no matter what their screen size.

The overwhelmingly majority of searches now are made on mobile. I can almost hear you saying, “I know Jon, but a majority of my conversions still come from desktop”.

Sure, but how did your customers find you in the first place? Never discount the role mobile plays in the discovery phase for a customer. If your customers typically take a multi touch point path to conversion you can almost be sure that they will have at least one of those touch points on mobile.

This is not to mention that Google likes mobile friendly websites. You can test what they think of your site’s mobile friendliness here.

You should either have a standalone mobile version of your site or at least a site that responds to fit the size of the searchers screen appropriately.

If your site is still loading a desktop version for mobile devices your first priority of anything in this post is to fix it.

Here are some tips to ensure that your site looks great on mobile;

  1. Use big buttons that are easy to press
  2. Make sure your text is large enough to be easily read, 14 or 16 size is best.
  3. For content, make sure that your paragraphs are less than three lines each. It is easier for people to read on mobile if there is plenty of white space. Big blocks of text suck.
  4. Video is great on mobile. If you can, try to convey messages using video.
  5. Keep your mobile design simple and uncluttered. Focus on ease of navigation, speed and clear calls to action and you shall convert.

Product Images

This would seem like a bit of a no brainer but we still see clients that come to us for assistance with ecommerce websites that have terrible or very little product imagery.

As far as possible you should always have multiple images of the products that you sell. You should have images that demonstrate the product from different perspectives as well as lifestyle/action shots of the product in action.

Remember that a key part of sales is making the customer understand how the product will benefit them if they buy it today. Product images play a role in achieving this.

Aim for a mix of standard white background images and lifestyle images.

Paying a professional photographer to do all of this for you can be a significant investment for a small business, don’t rule out doing it yourself. Check out this great guide from Shopify on DIY product photography.

You can get photos edited extremely cheaply by using freelancers from sources like Upwork or Fiverr.

Descriptions that Sell

This is another key area that I commonly see ecommerce site owners get wrong.

Yes your product description needs to describe the product, the buyer needs to understand the technical details, size, materials etc.

But you need to do more than tell someone what they can already see in the product images.

Your descriptions need to sell your products. Think of your product descriptions as mini sales people who are hard at work 24/7 selling your products for you.

Focus on writing descriptions that engage and persuade your customers to buy your products. Descriptions need to be unique and they need to explain the benefits that your customer will enjoy after purchasing your product.

There is an art to this and it definitely takes practice. Truly great product descriptions can help your business stand out from the pack and can boost your conversion rates significantly.

The first step is to know your audience, understand who they are. What are their desires? Needs? What might possess them to buy your product? From there the work is much easier.

Keep your product description easy to read. Use short paragraphs and dot points where possible. If you have a longer description, start with 3 – 5 dot points of the most important things you want your customer to know.

Make sure you include calls to action in your describe

Here’s a few great examples to get you started from Method and Thinkgeek.

Trust

You’ve probably heard by now about the importance of reviews for building trust in your online business.

It’s understood now that up to 90% of online consumers have read online reviews to determine the quality of a business or product. Many do this regularly.

So you need to gather reviews. That is clear; but there is much more to building trust with your customers than just presenting product or business reviews.

Other factors that will increase trust in your business are;

  • An easy to understand returns policy that actually helps customers
  • Multi touch points and accessible customer service
  • Product reviews and business or site reviews
  • Don’t always be selling, take some time to do the next point
  • Provide authoritative and relevant content

The last point here is one of my favourites. If you want people to trust you a great way to gain that trust is to help them.

Use content on your site to help your customers with specific pain points that they might experience and in turn they will trust you.

Want to know what their pain points in relation to your products are? Ask them.

A Clear Structure

This sounds simple but for larger and more complex ecommerce businesses it isn’t necessarily so easy.

Successful ecommerce sites get the customer from their entry point to the site to checkout in the fewest steps possible.

If your customer is confused about where they can find necessary information or navigation through the site they are likely to bounce and not come back.

Make sure your navigation is clear and simple. Make sure your pages are structured in a way that allows the customer to access any information they need to make a decision.

For example, are your shipping and returns policies or details easily accessible or viewable from your product page?

If your customer has to dig for these, don’t expect them to come back.

Upsells

I see so many stores that don’t have a concrete plan and processes in place to offer their customers upsells at, or close to, the point of purchase.

This is a shame as well planned and well placed upsells can add precious revenue and profit to every order.

When I talk about upsells, I am referring to either additional steps in the check out process, offering the upsells directly on product pages á la “People who bought this also bought that” and using email marketing directly after a purchase.

It can be much easier to sell to someone again when they already have their wallet out and are feeling the emotional uplift from making the decision to make their first purchase.

Here’s a few ways that you can offer upsells to your customers;

  • Add an extra step after the customer clicks “checkout” that offers ideally a single cheaper, discounted and closely related product to the one in their cart
  • Offer a bundle on the main product that contains the upsell items
  • Add upsell offers to your order confirmation emails. These emails are often read immediately after a purchase and have the highest open rates of any email you will ever send to customers. Offer a timed discount on the upsell items.

The Right Platform

The backend of an ecommerce site is just as important as the front end.

There is a huge array of platforms to base your site on from completely custom through Magento, Shopify, Woocommerce + WordPress and so on.

I’m not going to make any recommendations here other than to say that to build an excellent customer experience and a business that runs smoothly with little to no downtime you need a good platform.

Do your research. It can seem daunting to have to change if you are already up and running but in the long term you will reap the benefits. If you don’t feel like what you are using is currently working for you, it probably isn’t.

Functionality

You’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned design yet. To me many of these ingredients are part of the design of a website.

I haven’t mentioned anything about aesthetic design, how the website looks.

I prefer to talk about a website being functional. To me a functional website is also pleasing to the eye in a way that is relevant to its target audience.

I find that when the design focuses purely on aesthetics (a beautiful site) 8 times out of 10 the end result is a slow, confusing and low converting site.

The focus should be on planning a website that will serve the customer in the way they need to be, that will move them through the sales process in the shortest amount of time possible and with the fewest or no pain points.

The best way to achieve this is to spend a good amount of time planning the website before a build commences. Think about how a customer may need to move through the site, how will the site flow?

What information would a customer expect to see on each page of the site? Where should the calls to action be? Where should buttons sit?

Finally, to get a well functioning site from the start you need to test, test and test some more. Don’t rush this in a hurry to get to launch. Have some independent people run through your site to get an idea of how customers may view it. Then make improvements.

Content

I’m a big fan of ecommerce stores producing and promoting relevant content.

This can take many forms from traditional blog posts to Youtube videos to podcasts. The form isn’t important.

What is important is that you produce content that is relevant and helpful to your ideal customers and sets you as an authority in your niche or industry.

So many ecommerce businesses neglect content. It can be the one thing that sets you apart in a competitive market, it can form part of your unique selling proposition.

Here’s 5 more reasons why content is a must for successful ecommerce businesses;

  • Good content builds trust. If your business is positioned as an authority in the niche or industry that your products fit into they will feel more comfortable buying from you.
  • Content is great for generating organic (free) traffic. Want to rank higher in Google? Well planned, researched and promoted blog posts will help get you there.
  • Content is the basis for social media marketing. Images, videos and written content form the basis of a good social media strategy whether paid or organic.
  • Email marketing is better with helpful content. Email marketing is still one of the most profitable marketing strategies for ecommerce businesses but it doesn’t work well if you are constantly selling. You also need to add value, that’s where helpful content that solves problems comes in.
  • It may seem counter-intuitive but content can save you time in the long run. The more useful content you have on your site the less customers will need to contact you directly as their questions will be answered more often on-site.

I know, I can already hear the groans…”but Jon, good quality content takes time. I can’t post every day”.

The good news is that you don’t have to. Even posting something longer once or twice per week can really move the needle for you. You’ll thank me in the long run.

Customer Service

Flashback to the late 90s or early 2000s and you could run an ecommerce business with no contact details. Online shopping was still shiny and new to many people.

Not so anymore. Online shoppers expect the same or close to the same level of customer service that they would receive offline.

A study by LivePerson found that 83% of online shoppers needed some form of support in the online shopping journey.

Excellent customer service not only has implications for the customers on your site right now – what you are doing right now also has huge implications for the future of your business.

Consider this;

66% of customers switch companies due to poor service (Accenture)
82% of customers have stopped doing business with a company due to poor service (Zendesk)
95% of customers share bad experiences with others (Zendesk)
79% of high income households avoid vendors for 2+ years after a bad customer experience (Zendesk)

while

50% of customers use a company more frequently after a positive customer experience (NewVoice)
58% are willing to spend more on companies that provide excellent customer service (American Express)
73% of customers say friendly customer service reps can make them fall in love with a brand (RightNow)
86% are willing to pay up to 25% more for a better customer experience (RightNow)

These are just some statistics from a small selection of the overall online shopping pie but they paint a rather compelling picture don’t they?

Customer service isn’t just the obvious things like answering the phone or manning an online chat tool (although these are both important).

Excellent customer service also includes having easy to access and understand shipping & returns policies, FAQ documents, accurate product descriptions, up to date stock levels and helpful longer form content.

Doing customer service well does mean making an investment in time and money but it almost always pays off.

Good customer service is also another way that your brand can stand out from a crowded market. If you can’t win on price, win on service because many customers will pay more for the experience.

So how do you feel you measure up on each of these essential ecommerce ingredients?

Trying to put each of these things together can often seem daunting. If you’ve got a way to go or multiple areas of improvement that you feel your business could make here’s what I suggest you do;

  1. Make a plan for how you can improve on each ingredient
  2. Set yourself measurable steps to take and realistic timeframes to achieve them in
  3. Focus on improving one ingredient at a time. Don’t try to do everything at once, especially if you are flying solo or have a small team. That is a recipe for disaster.
  4. Allocate your plans to a calendar and work consistently to that timeframe

Do you feel we’ve missed something here? Start a discussion below, I’d love to hear your thoughts.